Whilst personal teacher-student relationships are highly researched in school settings, they are often under-researched within higher education (Hagenauer and Volet, 2014). Yet, teacher-student relationships are critical to a student’s learning experience and impact both online and traditional learning spaces within HE contexts. The difficult of fostering personal teacher-student relationships is evident when the context within which these dynamics are cultivated includes high-scale student enrolments, few academic staff, and an ever-increasing international student body. In this environment, ‘academic freedom, autonomy, control and support are all but lost or marginalised as HEI courses are developed and marketed centrally, with little or no thought about the student experience’ (Jabbar et al., 2018, p. 87). Consequently, it becomes increasingly difficult to foster a feeling of personalisation.
Jabbar et al., also point out that, for academics, this environment emphasises an ‘increased workload to support students’ coupled with the expectation ‘to publish research alongside the pressure of ever increasing teaching schedules’ (2018, p. 88). From the perspective of academic staff, it may seem futile, and sometimes impossible, to build a personal pedagogical relationship with every student that appears on their heavy teaching schedule, especially when balancing the other priorities of a globally competitive HE arena. With the steady shift towards a marketisation model within HE, the priority has become numbers, not people (Williams, 2013).
This focus on numbers can prove even more problematic for the online environment, where it has always been thought more difficult to cultivate personal pedagogical dynamics because of the lack of face-to-face interaction. Building a personal dynamic with another person whom you have never met is a challenge —and one which has always faced online learning — but it is a challenge that needs surmounting. Personal pedagogical relationships are critical for both student learning and student satisfaction. In one academic study of traditional face-to-face students, it was evidenced that students often list personal relationships with academic staff as top of their list of important factors in their learning journey (Symonds, 2020). This stems from an ingrained need to boost our self-esteem. Hargreaves, in a seminal educational text on interpersonal relationships, argues that students are socialised into seeking praise from teachers; when they receive positive feedback, it boosts their self-esteem and they strive to receive this praise repeatedly, because it feels good (1972, p. 200). A teacher’s ability to change a student’s life is not just a romantic idea, but a highly theorised aspect of our socialisation that holds true within higher education.
This transformational teacher experience can only become a reality when teachers are able to foster personal pedagogical dynamics with their students. But how do we create these dynamics in an online environment that seems to go against the notion of personalisation? The beauty of online learning environments is that they can be more structured, and thus, more malleable than traditional settings. We can manipulate the learning environment to encourage and foster the cultivation of personal dynamics through the use of different learning spaces within the online platform. It can actually be easier to achieve within an online setting than it can be within a traditional classroom; there is more scope to set the scene and lead students and faculty into a dynamic that is built upon personalisation. At insendi, fostering personal engagement between students and faculty is central to our design process. From pre-delivery communicative tools, such as the Newsfeed, to delivery and post-delivery collaboration through individualised feedback and Forum engagement, the learning design process includes key points of structural design that emphasise personal relationship building between students and teachers.
There are few people who cannot recall a teacher who made a difference to their lives, and who helped them find their love of learning. One of the most important aspects of a learning designer’s job is creating a space in which these high-impact and personal pedagogical dynamics can flourish within online environments. Thoughtful learning design coupled with faculty who want to replicate these important personal dynamics on a platform that places pedagogy before technology affords the possibility of reversing the shift towards emphasising numbers over people.